What's the difference between "indigenous", "native brazilian", "amerindian", "aborigine"?

The generic expression "Indigenous peoples" refers to many human groups that are scattered throughout the world and can be very different from each other. In Brazil alone there are more than 230 of these peoples.

It is just the use of the language that makes that, in Brazil as well as in others, one talks about 'Indigenous peoples', while in Australia, for example, the generic form to designate them is 'aborigines'. Indigenous or aborigine, says the dictionary, mean 'born in a country, native'. By the way, 'natives' and 'autochthonous' are other words used around the world to name these peoples.

What do all these Indigenous peoples have in common? First of all, the fact that each one of them identifies itself as a specific collectivity, distinct from others, particularly from the large society of the country where it lives.

Can indigenous people obtain identification cards?

Yes, the Indian can and should obtain an identification card, which is the general registration of Brazilian citizens. Thus, everyone has a right to this identification card, a right not an obligation. The normal identification card, which is obtained from the police, is called civil identification, and its function is precisely to prove one identification wherever one travels and, where necessary, to present to Brazilian authorities. Brazilian law does not permit or allow ethnic identification. The identification card presents the name, parents and date and place of birth, but has no information regarding ethnic identification, skin color or sexual option. On the other hand, the indigenous people have a right to register in the community where they were born. This registration, without doubt is an ethnic identification. 

Can the Indian vote? Can he be a candidate?

There is no restriction in terms of voting for any Brazilian citizen. All Brazilian citizens have the right to vote. In theory there is no restriction, but to vote a person must be enrolled in an electoral region his name must be on the voting list, which is basically an electoral notary public. The vote in Brazil is obligatory. If he is of age and can read and write in the Portuguese language, he is obliged to vote. However, I understand that if he lives in a village according to its uses and traditions and the indigenous community collectively decides not to vote, this decision prevails over the obligatory vote of the Brazilian legislation because the indigenous communities have the constitutional right to live according to their uses, traditions and customs.

The Indian can be a candidate, since he is a citizen with full rights. To be a citizen, however, there are some restrictions, such as knowledge of the Portuguese language, for some positions. If he fulfills these requirements he can be a candidate since he is a citizen with full rights.

Is Tupi the Native Brazilian's language?

More than 150 languages and dialects are spoken by the Indigenous peoples in Brazil today. They are part of the near 6,000 tongues spoken today in the world. Before the arrival of the Portuguese, however, only in Brazil that number was probably close to 1,000.

In the process of colonization of Brazil, the Tupinambá language, the most widely spoken along the coast, was adopted by many colonists and missionaries, taught to Indians grouped in the missions and recognized as Língua Geral (General Language). Today, many words of Tupi origin are part of the vocabulary of Brazilians.

Just as the Tupi languages have influenced the Portuguese spoken in Brazil, contact among peoples ensures that Indigenous tongues do not exist in isolation and change constantly. In addition to mutual influences, languages have among themselves common origins. They are part of linguistic families, which in turn can be part of a larger division, the linguistic branch. And just as languages are not isolated, neither are their speakers. In Brazil there are many Indigenous peoples and individuals who can speak and/or understand more than one language; and it is not uncommon to find villages where several tongues are spoken.

Among such diversity, however, only 25 indigenous languages are used by more than 5,000 speakers in Brazil: Apurinã, AshaninkaBaniwa, Baré, ChiquitanoGuajajara, Guarani [Guarani Ñandeva / Guarani Mbyá / Guarani Kaiowá], Galibi do Oiapoque, Ingarikó, KaxinawáKubeoKulinaKaingangKayapóMakuxiSateré-MawéTaurepangTerenaTicunaTimbiraTukanoWapixana, Xavante, YanomamiYe'kuana.


If a Native Brazilian drives a car, watches TV, can they still be considered as such?

Contact with our society certainly brings about changes on the way of living of Indigenous peoples. In this regard, one must have in mind two things.

First of all, Indigenous cultures are not static. Like all cultures, they change with time, whether affected by outside influence or not. Because of that, those who intend to be a ‘friend’ of the Indians do not have necessarily to defend that 'they are kept like they are now'. On the other hand, it is undeniable that some of the changes brought about by contact with our society may cause concern. Such is the case, for example, of those peoples who have lost their maternal language and today speak only Portuguese. Our role, as allies of the Indians, must be to make sure that they have social, economic and political conditions to absorb the novelties that come along with contact in the way they deem most convenient.

In the second place, it must be said that, behind the changes, with different rhythm and nature depending on the case, there is something crucial: even while relating to non-Indians, Indigenous peoples maintain their identities and assert themselves as differentiated ethnic groups and holders of their own traditions. And that is valid even for situations of intense changes.

Ethnic identity, that is, the consciousness of belonging to a given people, is the result of a complex interplay between 'traditional' and 'new', the 'own' and the 'outsider’s', that takes place each time different populations have contact. That must be taken into account before making a statement such as ‘he is no longer an Indian’ because he wears clothes, goes to mass, watches TV, works with computers, plays football, drives a car...

Are there Native Brazilians living away from non-indigenous people?

In recent years there have been at least 42 evidences of the existence in Brazil of 'isolated Indians'. That is the denomination given to those Indians which the organ of the Federal Government in charge of Indian affairs, the Fundação Nacional do Índio - National Foundation for the Indian - Funai has not established contact. No one knows for sure who they are, where they are, how many they are and what languages they speak.

The little that is known about them is that 25 of those evidences have occurred within Indigenous Lands that have already been demarcated or have some degree of recognition by Federal organs. Of the 42 evidences, Funai has already confirmed 12. 

Do indigenous peoples help preserve nature?

Even though they are not 'naturally ecologists', Indigenous people should be seen as historically capable of having managed natural resources in a rather non-destructive way, causing very little environmental disturbances up until the arrival of the European conquerors.

Those who think of the Indians as 'natural' beings, innate defenders of nature, 'naturalists', are just a step away from seeing them as mere extensions of the environment: for them Indians should be 'preserved' and kept apart from the 'civilized' world.

This vision derives, however, from a conception of nature that is proper to the Western world: the idea of nature as something that should remain untouched, away from human action. What Indigenous peoples themselves have to say about that is very different though.

The conceptions about nature certainly vary considerably according to the Indigenous people we look at. However, if there is anything common to all of them is the fact that nature is always interacting with human actions, it is never untouched.

The Yanomami, for instance, use the word urihi to refer to the 'land-forest': it is a living entity, endowed with a 'vital breath' and with a 'fertility principle' of mythical origin. Urihi is inhabited and enlivened by many spirits, among them the spirits of the Yanomami shamans, who are also its guardians.

The survival of human beings and the preservation of social life in what refers, for example, to obtaining food and protection against diseases, depends on the relationship with these forest spirits. Thus for the Yanomami nature is a stage from which human action is not separated.